ST. LOUIS — Mary Thompson used to gamble no more than once a year. Then, on the anniversary of her husband's death, burdened by the drug use of her only child, she spent a night on "the boats" - floating casinos. She gambled until dawn and won $30,000. Over the next year she won $82,000 - but lost $122,000.
Her gambling intensified until one night she lost virtually all her monthly pension check. She promptly walked into the offices of the Missouri Gaming Commission and banned herself from the state's casinos. For life.
"It just got to the point where I said, 'This is ridiculous,' " says Mrs. Thompson (not her real name).
Thompson is one of more than 1,400 compulsive gamblers who have signed up for a one-of-a-kind program that threatens participants with expulsion and arrest if they're found in casinos. It's a pioneering effort to enlist casinos as social cops, and it has doubled in size since mid-1999. Encouraged by this success, casinos and counselors nationwide are watching Missouri's experiment for clues in dealing with their own chronic gamblers.
Begun four years ago, the project tries to keep participants out of casinos by stopping them at the entrance turnstiles, which require an ID card. Gamblers start the program by filling out and signing a multipage questionnaire. It explains that the ban is for life and cannot be rescinded. Although a number of self-banned gamblers have tried to back out later - even threatening lawsuits - the state purposely wrote the rule without such a provision.
But the program has evolved since its creation. It was originally created in response to a gambler who'd lost a lot of money and wrote the Missouri Gaming Commission (MGC), asking if it could block his access to casinos. The commission quickly wrote a rule to that effect, but gambling counselors across the US objected. They said the state was, in effect, assuming responsibility for compulsive gamblers, thereby putting the onus for behavioral change on the government.
The MGC agreed, and the current redesigned program places the burden on gamblers. They promise to stay out of casinos, while asking the state to help them. In return, the state blocks casinos from sending them any marketing material and enforces the trespassing ban.
"This isn't a stand-alone recovery plan," says Kevin Mullally, deputy director of the MGC. "You've got to combine it with something else - a third party who knows you, knows your problem, and can talk you out of it when you get the urge."
Stan Bier, a psychologist in Kansas City, Mo., is generally supportive of the program but rates its effectiveness at about 50 percent.
"I have a number of patients who say to me that the prospect of getting arrested [for trespassing] frightens them enough that they stay away." But for others, the risk of being caught and going to jail "adds to the excitement," he says, and if they get away with it once, the ban can lose its effectiveness.
Moreover, Dr. Bier says, the laws lack bite. When the voluntary-exclusion rule was new, he says, one of his patients was arrested four or five times for trespassing, without consequence.
Indeed, Mr. Mullally says the "consequence" part is problematic. Currently, if self-banned gamblers manage to make it into a casino using other players' ID cards, they are arrested for trespassing but allowed to keep their winnings.
Last year, the state legislature passed a bill that would have given the MGC the authority to confiscate money, but it was vetoed by the governor, reportedly because of other aspects of the legislation. If a new bill passes this year, as officials hope, jackpots would be forfeited and placed in a fund to treat problem gamblers.
In 1999, self-banned gamblers were arrested a total of 88 times for trespassing on casino property, including a dozen multiple offenders.
The state keeps no record of what happens to such offenders, but many of the arrestees are believed to have been given probation.
Thompson admits to having sneaked into casinos some 20 times since banning herself 18 months ago. She usually borrows a friend's "player's card" and avoids casinos where she's well known. But she says the program has been "very helpful." "I'd be down there every day if it wasn't for being banned," she says.
It has been three months since she last violated her ban. She hasn't returned to "the boats" since she spoke to counselors last year. One of the counselors, who has spent time at a women's prison, asked her how she looked in orange.
"I was horrified," says Thompson, realizing the counselor was talking about the jumpsuits prisoners wear. "I've never seen the inside of a jail. I've only had one speeding ticket my whole life."
One problem the Missouri program has encountered is the availability of gambling in nearby states. Thompson admits to having "done Topeka" in Kansas a few times.
Other gambling jurisdictions, including Nevada, have looked at Missouri's program and reportedly have been impressed. Yet the Show Me State's controlled environment - with turnstiles and player's cards to help limit losses to $500 per two hours - is unique. Nevada's casinos, which cater to large numbers of tourists, are traditionally wide open. Nevertheless, Nevada has adopted a rule requiring each casino to have its own self-banning program.
In Missouri, casinos grumbled about the program at first, concerned it would be hard to implement and leave them open to lawsuits if they failed to stop banned gamblers from gambling - and losing. But after three years of fine-tuning, they have embraced the program, touting their involvement whenever the issue of problem gambling arises.
"All early indications are that it is a great deal of help to a lot of people," says Mullally. "Are we helping everybody on the [banned] list? Absolutely not.... But people who have embraced the program along with counseling are doing quite well."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society